Settela Steinbach, a nearly-forgotten Sinti-Roma story from WWII

Anna Maria – known as Settela – Steinbach was born on 23 December 1934 in Buchten in Limburg and grew up in a wagon. She came from a large family. Her father was a trader and a violinist, her mother ran the household in their wagon. Searching for work, they moved from village to village. The local authorities did nothing to improve the miserable conditions at the sites where the wagon dwellers stayed. They would rather be rid of them.

Settela and her family were regarded by the authorities as ”Dutch gypsies”, however they originally came from Germany. Settela had probably heard a lot from her family members about the worsening situation there. After 1933, a number of Sinti and Roma were forcibly sterilised under the „Law for the prevention of Hereditarily Diseased Offspring”. In 1935 they were even stripped of their German citizenship. From the mid-1930s, the German Sinti and Roma were locked up in camps. A series of discriminatory measures soon followed.

Wagons to the direction of Auschwitz. Capture from the original recording.

In 1940, the Nazis invaded the Netherlands. At first, there was little sign of harsh German measures against Sinti and Roma. Then, in July 1943, the German occupying forces instituted a prohibition on the movement of wagons. Eventually, all wagons were concentrated in 27 guarded assembly camps. Many wagon dwellers, probably including Settela’s family tried to evade these measures. Nevertheless, Settela’s family ended up at the Eindhoven central assembly camp. After that, things went ominously quiet –  until 14 May 1944. On that day, police throughout the country received  an order by telex: all ”gipsy families” were to be transferred to the Westerbork transit camp by Tuesday 16 May. Settela’s family and her aunt Theresia were arrested at four o’clock that Tuesday morning during the round up.

Over the course of 16 May and the days that followed, trains carrying those arrested during the general round up arrived at Westerbork transit camp; there were 574 people altogether. Two families, 64 people in total, had foreign passports (including Swiss and Italian) which offered them protection. For this reason, almost all of them were released on 20 May 1944, along with the ”wrongly” arrested ”non-gypsies”. On 19 May 1944, the 246 people designated as ”gypsis” were forced to board a train for ”transportation” to the east. The Sinti and Roma, including Settela and her family, were in goods wagons 12 to 17. Just at that moment, film recordings were being made on the orders of camp commander Albert Konrad Gemmeker. During the filming, the camera caught the gaze of Settela, who was staring out – immediately before the train departed for Auschwitz. The recording is available on the following link:

Still from the “Westerbork film” showing Settela peaking outside through the crack. Courtesy of the WWII Image Bank-   National Institute for War Documentation.

On 21 May 1944, the Dutch Sinti and Roma arrived in Auschwitz-Birkenau. There they were registered and housed in the Zigeunerlager, a special section of the main camp. The notorious camp doctor, Dr. Joseph Mengele performed medical experiments on prisoners from the ”gypsy camp”, including children and twins. Between late July and early August 1944, this part of Auschwitz was cleared. At the end of the evacuation, nearly 2900 Sinti and Roma were deemed unsuitable for forced labor were gassed. Together with her mother, two brothers and two sisters, Settela died probably during the night of 2-3 August 1944, in one of the gas chambers Auschwitz-Birkenau. The images form the „Westerbork film” were shot by the Jewish photographer, Rudolf Werner Breslauer,  on the orders of the commander of Camp Westerbork, Albert Konrad Gemmeker. The images belong to the ownership of the Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision.

The haunting image of Settela, standing in the closing doors of a goods train in Westerbork concentration camp, became famos after the war. The image was much used in documentaries and books. The ”girl with the handscarf” became a symbol of persecution of the Jews. In the early 1990s, Dutch journalist Aad Wagenaar started an investigation into the identity of the girl. He discovered that she was not Jewish, but Sinti. And he discovered her name: Settela Steinbach.

68 years after Settela’s death, in 2012, Romani communities are remembering in Hungary of the forgotten, less researched, many times denied miseries on a symbolic place, which have been set up by civic organizations in order to remember and get remembered.

Join us and remember of the victims of Pharrajimos on 2 August, on the Nehru-part, Budapest, close to the Bakáts square on the Nehru-bank at 6 o’clock in the evening!


The Romedia Foundation will soon launch “The Requiem for Auschwitz” as part of a large-scale European project to raise awareness and change attitudes toward the plight of Roma in the genocide.

On November 6, the last of seven Requiem concerts will be held in Budapest, Hungary. The Requiem for Auschwitz is being performed throughout Europe by the Roma und Sinti Philharmoniker from Frankfurt, the only professional classical Sinti and Roma orchestra in the world. The orchestra is conducted by Riccardo M. Sahiti. A local choir will perform the choral parts in each country.

The goal of this multi-faceted effort is to use tools of education and culture to reconnect Roma and Sinti populations of Europe to the legacy of the Holocaust and thereby foster greater understanding and tolerance toward them and help them address the challenges they face today.

 There is more about the project at our Facebook page

The international partners for the project are the ALFA Foundation/International Gypsy Festival (Holland), Romano Kher National Centre (Romania) for Roma Culture, Philarmonischer Verein der Sinti und Roma (Germany), Slovo 21 (Czech Republic), Roma People Association (Poland) and the Romedia Foundation (Hungary).

More details can be found here –